Book: “The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden
Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from Edelweiss+
Book Description: Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.
Review: I don’t want to write this review. Writing this review is the last step in having to acknowledge that this trilogy is truly finished and I want to keep pretending there is more to come! I mean, obviously, Arden has accomplished something incredible with this fantasy series, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from her soon. But…but…what about this world and these characters?? Ok, I’ll try to pull it together and get through this.
The story picks up almost immediately after the events of “The Girl in the Tower.” Moscow almost burned and there is chaos and confusion in the streets. Blame is going around in spades and Vasya once again finds herself in the midst of a tumultuous situation. Even escaping the immediate threats to life and limb, larger forces are moving and lines are being drawn not only between the peoples of the world but also the magical beings who inhabit the unknown.
This entire series has been such an incredible journey of womanhood for our main character. In the first book, Vasya is young, wild and confident. In the second, we see here venture out beyond her comfort zone and build even more confidence in herself and her choices, even when those fly in the face of convention; however, some of this confidence leads to mistakes. And in the third, we see her as an adult, one who has faced her own failings and will hold those scars deep inside of her, but will not be defined by them. She begins to see the greys in the world and understand the weaknesses of herself and those around her. And through her acknowledgement of those weaknesses, she finally comes into her true power and potential. It’s an incredible arc, and this final act really nails the landing. Vasya is at her best in this story. These same flaws and fears that come to the forefront finally round her out as a complete character (this isn’t to say that I didn’t adore her before), and I think now having this finale in hand, I could re-read the first two and get even more out of those portions of her journey.
The story itself almost plays as three short stories, all drawn together through Vasya herself. The first third reads as an extended ending of the second book. The middle portion deep dives into the fantastical realms of the magical beings in a way that we’ve never experienced before. And the third brings us the resolution to the larger war taking place in Rus itself. All three were fantastic, but I think I enjoyed the middle portion best. The rest of the series has largely existed in the “real world” with magical elements interacting with humanity in various ways on that front. This story takes us “through the wardrobe” essentially. There were some classic Russian fairytale characters who show up, but also an introduction to several new ones (I don’t know enough about Russian folklore to know whether these were traditional elements as well, just less known to most readers, or creations of Arden’s own). I particularly enjoyed the magical horses, of course!
At the end of the second book, I really had no idea where Arden was going with the relationship that was being set up between Vasya and the Winter King. That book did a good job selling the idea that maybe that relationship was truly doomed, not so much in a tragic way, but in a “growing up” type of way. No spoilers for how things resolve here, but I was surprised with the direction it took, but ultimately quite pleased.
There were also a lot of surprises in store with some of the larger themes of the book and series as a whole. For the most part, we’ve had “good guys” and “bad guys” in the past books. Each story has touched on the complications of it all, but this one really tackles the idea of balance and what that truly looks like. Vasya must make sacrifices and compromises that she would never have imagined before. And readers will come to see certain characters in entirely different lights.
I could go on and on. The highest praise I can give this series is to say that I want to re-read it immediately and suspect that it will be even better a second-time around. It started out strong and got progressively stronger with each entry, a rare find in any series and a testament to the strength of the story and author.
Rating 10: January was a strong month for me; chock this one up as another shoe-in for next year’s “Top 10” list!
“The Winter of the Witch” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Russian Folkloric Fantasy.”
Find “The Winter of the Witch” at your library using WorldCat!